James Weldon Johnson, 'O Southland!'
Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Chris Mustazza joined Al Filreis to discuss James Weldon Johnson’s “O Southland!” Johnson made a recording of this and a few other poems late in his life in December 1935 at Columbia University, as part of a project led by George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects. The sound of the recording was imprinted on an aluminum platter, dubbed to a reel-to-reel tape in the 1970s by the Library of Congress, and recently rediscovered by Chris Mustazza during investigations on behalf of PennSound. The James Weldon Johnson author page was added to PennSound and announced in Jacket2 in November 2014.
“O Southland!” was published in The Independent in 1907 and again in W. E. B. DuBois’s Horizon in 1908, and was probably first encountered by most of Johnson’s contemporary readers in his book Fifty years & other poems (1917) or in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which Johnson himself edited. The PoemTalk conversation here speaks to the depth of Johnson’s rhetorical, idiomatic, metrical, and strategic influence on civil rights in later decades. The extent of this influence — and the centrality of Johnson’s “call” for us to hear “The mighty beat of onward feet” — seems to be disclosed fully only upon close listening; those “feet” are civic marchers and metapoetic notes toward the inexorable work of the poem as poem. The formal poem is not at all itself the “musty page” to which so many southerners “cling,” but stands as its new, adamant contradiction. Pictured above, left to right: Chris Mustazza, Salamishah Tillet, Herman Beavers.
PoemTalk episode #98 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner and Ari Lewis (Ari has been on the Wexler Studio team but this was her first PoemTalk — we welcome Ari) and edited by Zach Carduner. Next time on PoemTalk Al will be joined by Joseph Massey, Michelle Gil Montero, and Julia Bloch to discuss four short poems by William Bronk. PoemTalk is cosponsored by PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. You can subscribe to PoemTalk through iTunes.
PennSound podcast #53
Brian Teare came back to the Kelly Writers House on October 30, 2015, to speak with Jaime Shearn Coan about his new collection of poetry, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, published in 2015 by Ahsahta Press. Shearn Coan describes Teare’s collection as one that imagines “how to language what is un-languageable.” In this PennSound podcast, Teare and Shearn Coan talk about writing out of chronic illness, the book’s engagement with the work of American abstract painter Agnes Martin, and how poetry explores what sorts of shared communal narratives are possible.
Brian Teare, who conducted two interviews in the Wexler Studio in spring 2015 (Rachel Zolf, PennSound podcast #48, and Brent Armendinger, PennSound podcast #51), is an assistant professor of English at Temple University and the author of five books of poetry, including The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven and Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books.
Jaime Shearn Coan lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writings on dance and performance can be found regularly in The Brooklyn Rail. Jaime has been in residence at Poets House, VCCA, Mt. Tremper Arts, and the Saltonstall Foundation, and is the recipient of a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant. A PhD student in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Jaime teaches at Hunter College and serves as the 2015–2016 Curatorial Fellow at Danspace Project. His poetry chapbook, Turn It Over, was published by Argos Books in 2015.
A transcription of this conversation can be found here.
LISTEN TO THE SHOW
Angela Genusa is a writer and artist, formerly of Austin, Texas and now living in Louisiana. Her recent conceptual works include Simone’s Embassy (Eclipse Editions, 2015), Spam Bibliography (Troll Thread, 2013), Tender Buttons (Gauss PDF, 2013), and Jane Doe (Gauss PDF, 2013). Angela’s writing has also appeared in Abraham Lincoln, Jacket2, The Claudius App, EOAGH, P-Queue, McSweeney’s, the Post-Digital Publishing Archive, and Library of the Printed Web. She is currently a member of the collaborative writing group Collective Task, and you can find more of her work on her personal website. We spoke via Skype in July 2014.
Larry Eigner, 'Again dawn,' 'a temporary language,' and 'unyielding rock'
Michael Kelleher, Daniel Bergmann, and Ron Silliman joined Al Filreis for a discussion of three poems by Larry Eigner. The first, “Again dawn,” was written in November 1959; the second, “A temporary language,” was composed on September 1 and 2 in 1970; and the third, “Unyielding / rock,” was written on May 31, 1971. These poems, respectively, can be found in the magnificent Stanford University Press four-volume Collected Poems, edited by Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville, volume 2, page 357; volume 3, page 970; volume 3, page 1,013. PennSound’s Eigner page has remarkable recordings of various occasions when Eigner read his poems. Our recording of “Again dawn” was made during Eigner’s appearance on KPFA radio in Berkeley with Jack Foley in March of 1994. Our recording of “A temporary language” and “Unyielding / rock” both come from an album entitled around new / sound daily / means: Selected Poems, produced and issued by S Press as their Tape No. 37, recorded by Michael Kohler at Swampscott, Massachusetts, July 1 and 11 in 1974.
As an aid to those who will hear the podcast without having the text of the poems in front of them and thus might have trouble discerning all the words in Eigner’s performances, we asked Ron Silliman to read the poems also. This is a decision made unlightly, and indeed we took time during the podcast to reflect on it. And, as Dan Bergmann suggests in his generous response, such considerations are themselves related to the fundamental issue Eigner raises in his verse: what it means to be “articulate / beyond walls.” Kate Herzlin, Dan’s aide who bespeaks what Dan spells on a spellboard, serves for him, he says, a role analogous momentarily to Ron’s as he rereads Eigner. And as for whether the idea of a necessarily “temporary language” supports or inhibits poetic immediacy, force, and accessibility — one of Eigner’s ongoing themes — Dan observes: “Immediacy and force are not my friends, but I don’t think clarity is better than truth.”
Michael Kelleher, who joined us at the Writers House having traveled from New Haven, where he is the director of the Windham Campbell Prizes at Yale University, announced — to our delight — that the suite of annual prizes will now include the category of poetry for the first time.
PoemTalk #97 was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, Nick Seymour, and Adelaide Powell, and edited by Zach Carduner. Next time on PoemTalk, Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Christopher Mustazza join Al in a discussion of a newly rediscovered 1935 recording of James Weldon Johnson’s “O Southland!”
References below are made to The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Stanford University Press, 2010), in four volumes.
Allen Grossman, 'My Radiant Eye'
Kathryn Hellerstein, Peter Cole, and Ariel Resnikoff joined Al Filreis to talk about Allen Grossman’s poem “My Radiant Eye.” It’s a late poem written in a late style. It appears in Grossman’s last book, Descartes’ Loneliness. The performance of the poem, recorded by Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, gives us a voice that has “vatic sweep and boost,” as Peter puts it, but also “fragility.” Kathryn, who knew Grossman as her teacher of Humanities 1 at Brandeis decades earlier, will “never forget th[e] voice” of those long-ago lectures. That dramatic intoning is still here, she observes, but “you feel him slipping a little.” There is some improvising in the performance even as it falters. “I like the way he seems to be engaged with the text but not completely committed to it,” Ariel adds. “I love that you get this sense for the poem which is outside of the page, which exists momentarily in his mind but really only exists in this recording.” (We cannot think of a better reason for aural study of audio archives of poet’s readings.)
Our discussion led us to understand this poem as aligned well with Grossman’s overall belief late in his career that there is an ideal of a poem — that there is always an indefectible version that can never be realized in any given poem, an imagined poem that every poet is writing and which stands in a somewhat haunted, mournful relation to the poem that actually gets written.
Kathryn has found the Talmudic passage that seems to be the source, or one of the sources, of the comic didacticism in “My Radiant Eye” — all those detailed rules about what one can and cannot do in a “desolate synagogue.” The ancient source uses the term “ruined” rather that “desolate.” The latter word choice adds an emotional diction. “Ruined” seems external, an encountered given. “Desolate” conveys loneliness as an effect of ruination. The poem seems not to mourn the loss of the Jewish community, which is certainly one plausible reading. It is, rather, an individual pre-elegy. Grossman is mourning himself, in a way — marking the decline of the situation of the individual poet, safely inspired long before in “The Caedmon Room” (see a key poem of that title elsewhere in Descartes’ Loneliness). The productive poet’s space of original (and premodern, Peter notes) inspiration is now an abandoned weedy synagogue. The speaker tosses around regulations and injunctions for the use of “that Jewish study space” (in Ariel’s phrase) as if such rules make sense and could be followed. In fact we cannot imagine following them, so when the speaker claims to “know these things,” the reader is prepared for the absurd comedy of the conferring of the laurel crown by, of all random authorities, the King of Sicily. (When we arrive at Sicily, the poet himself seems a bit amused and surprised that we’ve gotten there.) The crowning is wholly ironic. In the end, the only way the vatic poet can achieve a transcendent experience is through “this baffoonish holy fool impersonation” (in Peter’s phrase). There is something pedantic and Talmudic — and unpoetic — about the repetition of the phrase “desolate synagogue.” But it is also, finally, poetic. Repetition is a form of refrain. As Kathryn observes, Grossman is “making an English poem out of pedantry and Talmudic study that seems to be at odds with the radiance of his eye.”
PoemTalk #96 was engineered and directed by Zach Carduner and Adelaide Powell, and edited by the same talented Zach Carduner. Al Filreis is the producer of the PoemTalk series, begun in 2007, and he looks forward to a special 100th episode. For that, seven poets who have appeared as PoemTalk guests over the years will converge on the Kelly Writers House to reflect on earlier episodes.
PoemTalk is an ongoing collaboration of PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. We are grateful to Hillary and Rodger Krouse and David Roberts for their support, and for the generosity of the Wexler family for their support of the Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House.